Irish Blood, English Charts

Waterford-born Gilbert O’Sullivan plays the University Concert Hall, Limerick, this Tuesday, March 23rd. He was born Raymond Edward O’Sullivan in December 1946 and moved to Swindon with his family in 1960. There, he became interested in music and moved from the guitar to the instrument for which he later became renowned: the piano. He was also a keen boxer and took part in nearly fifty bouts. He went to Swindon Art College in 1963, but his desire to become a graphic designer took a backseat to his love for music and songwriting. In 1967, he signed a five-year contract with CBS Records, but left after a couple of years due to lack of control over his music. He wound up at MAM Records with Gordon Mills in 1969 and had his first Top Ten hit in the UK the following year with Nothing Rhymed

In 1972, he had a worldwide hit with Alone Again (Naturally), which spent six weeks atop the Billboard charts and went on to sell two million copies in the US. He followed this up with two more US Top Ten hits that each sold a million: Clair and Get Down. He had a few more hits after this, but each subsequent release brought a lower chart placing. He did not appear in the US charts after 1974 and his only appearance in the UK Top 40 since 1975 was when What’s In a Kiss? slipped into the Top 20 in 1980. Only four of his albums have charted since 1976, all in the UK, and all compilations: Greatest Hits (1976) (#13); 20 Golden Greats (1981) (#98); Nothing But the Best (1991) (#50); and The Berry Vest of (2004) (#20). That most recent entry highlights his fondness for puns and it came on the back of three more punningly titled albums: Singer Sowing Machine, Irlish and Piano Foreplay. A documentary about O’Sullivan called Out On His Own will be broadcast on RTE One television on Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

One of the reasons that his hits dried up in the latter half of the seventies was that he had run into difficulties with his record company. In 1977, he became embroiled in legal proceedings with the label over unpaid royalties. His recording career was put on hold until the case was settled in 1982, when O’Sullivan won and was awarded £7 million and was also given control of his recordings and his songs. He would not release any new material until 1987 and found himself back in court in 1991, albeit for different reasons. The American hip hop performer, Biz Markie, used a sample from Alone Again (Naturally) on a track on his album, I Need a Haircut. O’Sullivan was again victorious and this landmark case required hip hop artists to clear samples and pay royalties for their use. You can check out Markie’s sampled version below along with a pretty straight cover by a guy named Roy Drusky and an instrumental version by a kid named Sungha Jung. Alone Again (Naturally) is O’Sullivan’s most covered song and its poppy, piano-led tune covers up a moving lyric. Nina Simone‘s version is more of a reinterpretation of the song, as she has completely altered the lyric to make it more personal (naturally)

Alone Again – Biz Markie

Alone Again (Naturally) (Gilbert O’Sullivan cover) – Roy Drusky

Alone Again (Naturally) (Gilbert O’Sullivan cover) – Sungha Jung

Alone Again (Naturally) (version) – Nina Simone

O’Sullivan’s babysitting duties for Gordon Willis’ daughter inspired his hit Clair and Laurent Voulzy‘s rendition is not radically different to the original. Emm Gryner‘s slower take on the deceptively-named Nothing Rhymed is taken from her covers album, Songs of Love and Death. In 2004, a band called The Uncle Devil Show included a song entitled Gilbert O’Sullivan on their debut album, A Terrible Beauty (a record that ‘contains the odd occasion of incongruous (and congruous) swearing’). The Devils are a trio of Scottish musicians fronted by Justin Currie of Del Amitri and belong to a lineage of pop parodists that stretches from The Bonzo Dog Band through Spinal Tap and up to the Flight of the Conchords. The song below concerns the complexities of musical taste and romantic love and would surely meet with Mr O’Sullivan’s approval. The final song goes out to Stephen Shane, who was in charge of one of the publishing houses at CBS Records when the then Ray O’Sullivan joined in 1967. It was Shane who suggested that Ray change his first name to Gilbert in honour of the songwriting partnership of WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Once you hear the musical bounce and lyrical dexterity of the Major-General’s Song below, I’m sure you’ll agree that Shane’s suggestion was a fitting one

Nothing Rhymed (Gilbert O’Sullivan cover) – Emm Gryner

Clair (Gilbert O’Sullivan cover) – Laurent Voulzy

Gilbert O’Sullivan – The Uncle Devil Show

I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major-General (from Gilbert & O’Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance)